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Statscan bid for personal data a symptom of growing disdain for public good

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Steve Kannon
Steve Kannonhttps://www.observerxtra.com
A community newspaper journalist for more than two decades, Steve Kannon is the editor of the Observer.

Along with coming up with new ways to spend/waste/line their own pockets with the money they take from you whether you like it or not (i.e. taxes), the current bunch in Ottawa want to know what you do with the rest, forcing the mandatory disclosure of our spending habits to government bureaucrats.

The latest saga in the road to our worse-than-anything-Orwell-could-ever-have-imagined future sees Statistics Canada looking to force the banks to provide it with all of our debit, credit and other spending records.

In a pilot project, Statscan wants the data of some 500,000 Canadians. Not just their spending patterns, but all the raw, non-anonymized data, which would include names and other identifying information of those citizens unlucky enough to be scooped up in the initial go-round. You can bet, of course, that the policy would soon apply to every Canadian. And you can bet that information would be shared with other interested parties … say, the taxman.

An even safer bet is that the information would be hacked, breached or otherwise revealed by some act of bureaucratic incompetence, despite assurances to the contrary. Such examples of messing the privacy bed have been commonplace in the government and Statscan specifically.

A comment on the story posted in the Globe and Mail offers the kind of repercussions that should be the norm for incompetence and horrible ideas.

“If they can give me some good examples of how the information will be used for policy that will benefit Canadians, and they can guarantee that my information is secure, then I’m willing to agree with this. When I say guarantee, I mean that this chief statistician receives the death sentence if any of this private information is stolen,” writes one well-intentioned wag.

In referring to Anil Arora’s bid to invade our collective privacy, the poster makes an interesting point about accountability. In the ideal world, Arora’s suggestion would be grounds for immediate dismissal and banishment from the sector. (Arora’s predecessor, Wayne Smith, resigned when the government was forcing Statscan to use the Shared Services Canada system that consolidates the data used by government departments, a centralization that puts data security at risk. No such principles in play now, however.)

Instead of firing Arora, Justin Trudeau backed up the request, proving he too has no regard for our collective privacy.

We would be much better off if he shared the suspicions of another bureaucrat, federal Privacy Commissioner who last week launched an investigation into the Statistics Canada plan.

On this front, the opposition has the right idea, grilling the government in Question Period and calling for the plan to be dropped.

“Canadians have a big problem with the government having real-time data on how they go about their daily lives,” said Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt in the House. “If someone goes to Tim Hortons, the government knows we were there. If someone goes to the grocery store, instantly the government knows they are there. This is not right.”

Trudeau again failed to stand up for Canadians, instead belittling the critics, who have it right on this one.

We are well-advised to fear governments taking away our privacy. Legislation increasingly has removing your rights as its primary goal. But they’re not the only ones putting us at risk: we’re often our own worst enemies.

Through the likes of Facebook and Twitter, we’re laying ourselves bare to the world.

Facebook, like many Internet sites, exists to harvest information, sell it to advertisers and target you with personalized ads. Tracking is the norm, as is collecting as many details as possible of what each of us does online. There’s nothing neutral about most of it: this is not just a sociology study, though, of course, it’s that too.

Leaving aside issue of why exactly people feel compelled to post the up-to-the-second minutia of their lives, there’s a danger of what you post being used against you. Police have culled through social media feeds, particularly photos and videos, to track participants in protests and violent acts such as riots. They’ve also used technology to recover stolen goods and the not-very-bright thieves who post the items for sale using online sites.

That’s an obvious peril, brought about by, well, stupidity.

More insidiously, authorities routinely use and abuse electronic surveillance. Governments are spying on you. Somewhere along the line, your personal information – your emails, phone calls and digital likeness captured on video – has been scooped up and stored away for future use and abuse.

There’s only one reason for this. No, it’s not about national security. Or even your security. It’s so that they can control you. Well, millions of yous. The surveillance state isn’t about keeping the bad people out, it’s about keeping those inside under wraps, with no escape.

Stifling dissent and exercising control are the defaults for all authorities … not just authoritarians.

Oh, this is all couched in the language of increased safety, drawing heavily on terrorism rhetoric. Our current governments aren’t the first to take authoritarian steps – that’s been going on for decades – but it certainly has been eager to take advantage of the post-9/11 frenzy, joining the U.S., UK and other nominal democracies in clawing back hard-won rights.

Many governments in the West have been quick to foster a culture of fear, allowing them to impose laws that would have been unthinkable before 9/11 and to spend vast sums of money on military, police and security programs that have enriched the coffers of a few at everyone else’s expense.

With each new measure that increases video, phone and Internet surveillance, overrides the judicial process and creates new enemies through wars, we edge a little closer to the kind of dystopian state Orwell, Huxley and countless others have warned us about.

Certain types have always had the urge to spy on people; in the post-9/11 world, the paranoid and dictatorial have found new ways to curtail public freedoms. Their attempts to play on current fears have many precedents – think of McCarthyism and the state police of hundreds of oppressive regimes.

Information gathered by Statscan will hurry us along a perilous path. As with all current surveillance, misuse will be rampant. Throw in a lack of data security and oversight and we quickly see the perils become even greater. The government won’t protect you, as it’s the biggest offender. Officials are just counting on us to be so distracted by mindless entertainment, selfies and photos of our lunches to pay attention to the evil they do.

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